Helena Pozniak discusses the routes to studying for a postgraduate degree

Whether you’re studying full- or part-time for a postgraduate qualification, you will see the wrong side of midnight at some point. “I found my husband at his desk this morning in his dressing gown and thought ‘good, at least he’s gone to bed at some point’,” says the wife of a doctor in the throes of finishing a postgraduate degree alongside his fulltime job. “But he'd just put it over his clothes to keep warm while he studied all night.”

However you study, a successful postgraduate course requires an iron will. Either way, your time is no longer your own. Which mode to choose usually boils down to money. Around 54 per cent of postgraduates in the UK opt for full-time study. They tend to be young, possibly from abroad, and many go straight from their first degrees into their second. Older students often go part-time because they can’t afford to quit their job or have other commitments.

Whatever the choice, postgraduates can expect longer hours than the usual working week. With funding scarce, most full-time students work as well as study to make ends meet.

Part-timers find themselves attempting Herculean juggling feats: a few hours’ study before work, during a lunch break or after the kids are in bed.

Thinking space is one of the luxuries that comes with full-time study.

“It’s not just about taking classes,” says Cambridge-based Fulbright scholar Prajwal Ciryam, who is pursuing a doctorate. “It’s about time outside of the classroom. My best ideas come after a chance discussion in the course of a day that is usually devoted to thinking through my work.”

“Full-time: nice if you can afford it”, is an attitude shared by many postgraduates.

Fees vary from around £4,000 a year to £12,000 and beyond, meaning students must find more money over a shorter period. There are no official loan structures in place, but some bursaries and funding options are available via www.prospects.ac.uk, the government’s careers website.

It’s only worth borrowing the cash for a full-time course if you will reap measurable rewards, says Dr Heather McGregor, author of Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice For Ambitious Women. “You can end up exhausted. If you know, for instance, an MBA will boost your earnings, better to borrow, put everything into it and get a distinction,” she says.

Time is a commodity as much as money. Prospective postgraduates should work out, down to the last hour, where they will extract study time from their week. “If you want to do well, quantify how much time you need,” says Dr Caroline Gatrell, a social scientist at Lancaster University Management School and author of Managing Part-time Study. She calculates it takes 25 hours of study a week to earn a distinction at business school, whereas 12 hours is only enough to get by. Weekends, evenings and early mornings are all fair game, but it will inevitably squeeze out time for family and enjoying yourself.

Staying on track as a part-time postgraduate is one of the greatest challenges, Gatrell says, so choose your mode of study carefully. Fixed timetables and contact with your peers and tutors will help you stick with it. While modular online courses are the most flexible way to study, they don’t have the “gun to your head” effect of a firm deadline. However, when your studies relate directly to your current work, one naturally enriches the other. Real experience is valued in many vocational postgraduate courses, although it may raise expectations of what you will achieve.

University staff regularly advise students that you stand more chance of staying the course if you love your subject and you know where you want to be. Emma-Jane Luscombe, a single mother who is facing another five or six years of study on a part-time PhD in international business at Glyndwr University, agrees. Living with her parents, who share the care of her two-year-old son, she was already a mature student when she completed her first degree and she moved seamlessly into postgraduate study. “The university gives me a lot of support to make the timeline manageable.

My initial thoughts were to finish my degree and get on, but with a PhD I can secure a good job, and ultimately have better opportunities for family life.”